Tag Archives: book reviews

Ben Arzate – The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye

benarzate_idiotsguidetosayinggoodbye

Ben Arzate is something of an enigmatic figure in that he is fairly prominent within edgy alternative political and literary circles but almost never expresses opinions on anything other than his analysis of people’s books. What does he actually believe? Who knows. If we are to follow the clues in his own books, we come no closer to unraveling the mystery except to infer that he might believe that nothing really matters, and one is better served in these turbulent times by taking refuge in the world of transgressive fiction, quietly amusing ourselves with the everyday horrors of contemporary life.

A while back I reviewed Ben Arzate’s brief poetry chapbook, which I found to be rather promising. So I was excited to read his new book of short stories, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye (published by NihilismRevised, 2018) because I knew it would be longer and have more meat to it (insert that’s what SHE said joke here.) What he excels at brilliantly in this book is in creating characters which behave and communicate realistically within the ridiculously absurd, exaggerated and often sci-fi situations they are placed in. He subtly shatters our idealistic and romantic notions by revealing just how mundane, unremarkable and pathetic our lives really are…in any context.

A prime example of this is the story, The Arranged Marriage. In recent years, arranged marriages have gained a resurgence of support and idealization among fringe reactionaries of the “trad” variety, which view them as a solution to “the incel problem” among many other so-called societal ills. Yet in Arzate’s The Arranged Marriage he depicts what I believe a contemporary arranged marriage would actually be like. Lisa and Michael are forced into an arranged marriage by their respective enthusiastic parents. The young couple agree to go along with it without much in the way of protest or enthusiasm. The couple’s conversations are filled with apathetic, intentionally uninspired strings of dialog such as the following:

“Are you looking forward to going to the
carnival?” I asked Lisa.
“I guess,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.

This is the way people in forced relationships really do talk to one another, regardless of whether the “forced” relationship itself is literally due to familial setup or it’s just two people that happen to be dating but aren’t emotionally invested in one another. They’re just going through the motions.

A relatable story for me is The Country Musician, which relays a tale of a struggling country music artist named Hank in rather realistic, unromantic and less than heroic terms. This isn’t That Thing Called Love.

Hank put the five songs on the Internet.
After a year, each has less than 300 plays. None of
them have gotten any plays in the past month.

This is what being a contemporary indie music artist is actually like. You release an album. A handful of people buy it, but ultimately no one cares except for maybe a few weirdos and lonely e-girls that have crushes on you. You put songs on Soundcloud and sort of promote them in a half-assed way, but they barely get any plays. You mail copies out to important people and record companies, and occasionally someone is interested but nothing happens. At some point someone important will express some interest in your music and offer you something, but only on the condition that you radically change it in ways which are incompatible with who you are and antithetical to your artistic vision. In Hank’s case, a record executive offers him a record deal but wants Hank to record a reggae album instead of country:

The executive tells Hank that he liked his
demo, but country is out. He says that reggae is
the next big thing.
Hank tells the executive that he likes
reggae, but he does not play reggae. He plays
country. He also says he is not black and not
Jamaican.
The executive tells him that it does not
matter that he is not black. There are white
Jamaicans. In a voice that sounds like Santa
Claus, he says that Hank just has to do a fake
Jamaican accent.

Almost all of the stories are written in this style of dry, deadpan prose. It’s clearly by design and emphasizes our drab, mechanical, stop-motion animated lives in clownworld. Most of the stories in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye have a weird horror/scifi component to them. The story with the same name as the book’s title concerns a house that physically gets cancer. Admittedly, this was one of the more horrifying and grotesque stories for a hypochondriac like me to read. The best way I could describe the stories in this book is that they remind me of the vignettes in 80s-90′s shows like Tales From the Darkside and Monsters, minus any preachy moralizing, important life lessons or poetic justice. I chose those shows to compare the book to specifically rather The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, which were often trying to lecture or teach us something about how to make the world a better place. Shows like Monsters only did that to a lesser extent and mostly just aimed to creep out the viewer.

Despite their intentionally uninspiring form and low-charisma characters, these short stories are surprisingly engaging. I didn’t find any of them to be boring or lackluster. The objects and “living” physical backgrounds often take up the slack themselves morphing into lively characterizations. There is plenty of imagination here and some stories may have a life outside this book. The Arranged Marriage in particular I feel has the potential to be developed into a novella or short film. The stories in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye often end abruptly and without a satisfactory resolution, much like our lives usually do: A man makes a plate of chips and salsa. He sits down on the couch to watch the football game. The game is a blowout, and the team he is cheering for is losing. He is not enjoying the game. During the third quarter, he suffers a heart attack and dies. There are a few chips left on the plate, but most of the salsa got on his shirt. A neighbor finds the man’s body the next day and calls the morgue to tell them there’s a dead body. While he is waiting for someone to arrive, he sees the plate of chips and decides they might not be too stale, so he eats one. (This is not an actual story in the book. I just made it up by the way.)

That’s how our lives actually are though and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye both horrifies and entertains by briefly taking us out of our depraved world of delusions so that we may cringe and laugh at ourselves and everything around us.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Complete-Idiots-Guide-Saying-Goodbye/dp/1723784990

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We Called Him Tortoise Because He Taught Us

At the used book store in the Milwaukee Airport in 1988, I made my mom buy me a book called “Winning Through Intimidation” mainly because, as a little kid, I liked the illustrations and was drawn to the cool looking turtle on the front cover.

I kept this book under my pillow(along with about 8 other books) and used to read it before falling asleep. I have no idea how much I was able to actually comprehend. Despite it’s title, this book is actually about how to avoid being intimidated, not just by people, but by life itself. With it’s cynical world view, and humorous anecdotes, the principles are timeless and can be applied to almost any situation. I revisited this book recently while in the bathtub and found that I had unknowingly(subconsciously) adopted many of the methods and attitudes promoted in this book(page 7 for example:)

Theory of Sustenance of a Positive Attitude Through the Assumption of a Negative Result

a. Prepare yourself for long-term success by being prepared for short-term failure
b. A person shouldn’t enter a sales situation feeling he can’t make the sale, but he should realistically assume that he won’t make the sale. If you’re prepared, then you’re able to feel confident that you are capable of making the sale if it is possible to be made. Hope for the best, but realistically assume the worst.
c. No matter how well prepared you are, only a small percentage of deals actually close, because there are an endless number of factors beyond your control.
d. Each negative result is an educational experience from which you can extract lessons learned, and then forget about the negative result.

How many times have I gone into a romantic situation enthusiastically while at the same time knowing it was likely to be a complete fucking disaster?(see the entry below this one.) I’m pretty sure it’s been every time, for a long time.

“Winning Through Intimidation” came out in 1973, and was remarkably a self-published book which became a #1 best seller. The Author, Robert Ringer, is still around, http://www.robertringer.com. I’ve always been obsessed with both rabbits and turtles. Indeed, my moniker on the internet was “rabbit” in the early days of the internet(after the main character in John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run which has always been a personal favorite.) The white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland was my favorite character as well. Yet, truth be told I identify more with the tortoise. In fact one of my ex girlfriends used to refer to me as a turtle, mainly due to how slow I was to commit and allow the relationship to progress. Though I might also argue that my incredible patience with her and protective shell to deflect her blows were the real turtle-like qualities. Friends I have had in the music and art world have never understood why I released things so cheaply and never followed the so called natural steps to achieve fame, fortune and notoriety. “How will you ever become popular if you don’t play live.” “Don’t you want to tour and get a record deal?” You have to do this. You have to do that to make it, Brandon.” All they thought about was the short term, concerned with doing whatever they could to get ahead quickly. When I started recording music in the late 90′s, I may have lived under some of those illusions, but I was looking 20 or 30 years ahead. My goal was to release as many works and small projects as I could, with an eye on what their cumulative effect would be as opposed to their individual immediate impact(which I had no illusions about.) Just put something out, any way you can, don’t push it too hard or give a rats ass what anyone thinks, and move on to the next project. Each is just a piece of some gigantic narcissistic puzzle of my life. Is it the best way to create things and live? I can’t really say I know for sure. It is this tortoise’s way though.

Robert Ringer adopted The Tortoise as his alter ego in his first book, because so many of the anecdotes in that autobiographical work were reminiscent of the legendary tortoise-and-hare tale. The Tortoise is the unglamorous plodder who always seems to find a way to come out ahead, no matter how harshly life treats him along the way. He isn’t flashy or impressive; his strengths are consistency, perseverance, resiliency, and resourcefulness. He’s the kind of reptile who, upon being told that he can’t play in someone’s game, simply goes out and starts his own league.

The Tortoise is the quintessential antihero, reflected in such characters as Ben Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman), the shy, stuttering boyfriend in The Graduate; or Colombo, the fumbling, stumbling detective played by Peter Falk in the old TV series of the same name, slow when it came to figuring things out, but always catching the villain in the end; or Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the Rocky film series, the late starter who overcame all odds to become world heavyweight champion.

The Tortoise is the ultimate icon of perseverance, the reptile who demonstrates that the outcome of most situations in life are decided over the long term. His motto succinctly sums up his view of the world:

Quickly getting out of the starting blocks may get people’s attention, but all that counts is where you are when the race is over.

“Maybe I’ll be seeing you around the jungle sometime.”

As a side note, given that this book came out in 1973, there are some hilarious parts in “boy-girl theory and “better deal theory” sections relating to how a woman can sell herself as a potential wife to a man(and vice versa.) Now after all these years I finally recognize where my views on relationships as business partnerships originated. It was as a prepubescent boy at the airport in 1988, picking up a copy of “Winning Through Intimidation.” The butterfly effect, anyone?


Brandon Adamson is the author of “Beatnik Fascism

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